Critical Theory for Recorded Music


My approach essentially defines a record of a song (or CD, or tape, media mostly irrelevant) as having five relevant "facets" or "dimensions." This gives us a somewhat consistent framework that can be applied and used, with of course the proverbial grain of salt because we are always in essence "dancing about architecture" when speaking or writing about music, as follows:

1. The notes. These include the melody, the harmony, any element on the song that can be notated on a pitch staff as having some objectively identifiable vibration rate along the lines of A440.

2. The words. Obviously this does not apply to instrumentals (which I both write and love dearly).

3. The sound. This refers to non-verbal elements that cannot be identified as having one pitch or another. Timbre of voices falls in here, effects such as echo and reverb, sound effects, the unique characteristics of this or that instrument, noise etc.

4. The initial gestalt. This refers to the complex web of surrounding circumstances at the time the song was recorded and (usually very soon thereafter) released. It includes how the song was perceived and conceived in relation to social, musical, emotional, and similar issues of the time, its commercial success and critical opinions in comparison to other contemporary material, etc. For an individual, this is how the song "hit" you when it originally emerged and you and it were in the same relative reality-space. While by its very nature somewhat subjective, this element takes shape at a certain time and remains that way forever, although subject to different interpretations and points of view.

5. The present gestalt. This element takes shape over the time that elapses after a song is released, the initial gestalt gels, and time goes by. It includes how you now feel, for example, about the song itself and the initial gestalt, post-release critical accretions, the perspective added by subsequent social and political developments, additional recording and other life events related to the artist/songwriter and so on. This element constantly changes.

Note that the arrangement or running order is not in itself an element or dimension, consisting of a complex sequencing and blending of the first three elements. Only the first three actuall appear on the recorded medium, although things like covers, graphics, liner notes etc. can participate in the last two aspects.

As both a musician and writer about music, I practice architecture and dance about it, and see value in both. Meredith Monk, for that matter, did a very nice dance piece in the Guggenheim Museum, so while appreciating one artistic medium through another has its limitations, it also provides its own opportunities for excellence even if certain metaphors are taken utterly literally.

Smile by Brian Wilson/ the Beach Boys is actually a very interesting case viewed in this light... the first three dimensions remain murky and ill-defined because there is no actual album. The fourth dimension is sort of delayed, aborted, forever distorted if you will because unlike almost all music it did not appear publicly at or near the time it was made (the true 1967 Smile will never exist!); yet since that very time the fifth dimension has taken shape, in infinite and odd complexity for exactly these reasons, due to rumor and bootlegging.

Anyway, I think this 5-D theory is a useful way of looking at such things and it underpins, so to speak, all of my activities in this area to date. Dimensions 1 and 2 are obvious; dimension 3 I owe to Phil Spector; dimensions 4 and 5 are adapted from the work of Jorge Luis Borges in the realm of literature. The unified theory of these five I claim as my own, inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Lennon, and Brian Wilson (OK, Einstein too, why not?)